Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Unitarian Church of Evanston IL Spied Upon by Army Intelligence

In doing some research into the history of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to the war in Vietnam, I have come across a little known and courageous moment in American history. It is a moment that touches three distinct eras of my own life.

It is the story of the former Army Intelligence Officer who came to the site of the Unitarian Church he had once been ordered to conduct surveillance upon in order to confess. He came to confess his complicity in what he came to believe was a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America… to which he had sworn an oath.

His name was John O’Brien. I have been able to find out little about him, other than that he testified before Congress about the U.S. Army’s surveillance activities against subversive organizations. He had apparently been an Army Intelligence Officer in Europe before being brought back to the U.S. to be a part of the Evanston Illinois Army Intelligence Office that monitored the churches and other organizations in the area. In the transcript of the sermon and then forum-speech he gave on Sunday, May 9th, 1971, he speaks of having been involved in collecting intelligence on several Illinois figures, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Adlai Stevenson (Unitarian who later ran for President).

In his amazing sermon and speech, he talks quite candidly about the operation in Evanston and Illinois, and even mentions that some of what he is speaking of was classified and that he expected he might get a visit from the FBI in the coming days. He speaks of his initial briefing in the area, held on the street in front of the Unitarian Church, which was pointed out to him as one of the hotbeds of radical activity, not just because the church members were radicals, but because the church allowed many other groups to meet there.

I got the sense in reading his words that he was not a very liberal man, and certainly was not a “60’s radical”. He was a man of conscience who saw the reality of the Army generic sumatriptan price investigating American citizens, a reality that he could not reconcile with the oath he took to “support and defend the Constitution”.

I am a former Army Intelligence Analyst, and my wife is a former Army Counter-Intelligence Agent. Our reading of these pieces is that it is in line with what we were taught about that time, and that the document seems valid. In truth, as I was reading it I came to the belief that what he said that morning might even have constituted a felony for a former Intelligence Officer.

What I have not before shared is that my father was a part of the same operation… the same program of surveillance and monitoring of domestic dissidents during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement. Instead of Illinois, my father was assigned to offices in California… in Berkley and in Los Angeles. I grew up with the stories of that time, from the perspective of the agents, not the dissidents.

Now, in the church that was once considered a hotbed of radical activity and a threat to the security of the U.S. Army, I completed my ministerial internship to become a U.S. Army Chaplain. Now I am a Candidate for the Ministry of the faith that my father and his colleagues felt was such a threat. Now, I have the privilege to see the courage of a man who my father probably knew (and despised). I have the privilege to know that John O’Brien shared the same pulpit (metaphorically, not literally) that I spent a year preaching from.

What all of this means, I cannot say. But I can say this… our lives are all connected, even beyond the bounds of time. When John O’Brien spoke that day before committing himself to a self-enforced silence for the sake of his family, could he have known that his words would have a profound effect, 37 years later, on the son of a colleague studying for this dangerously radical ministry so he could return to the Army to take care of soldiers?

What an amazingly Interdependent World we live in…

Yours in Faith,


5 Thoughts on “Unitarian Church of Evanston IL Spied Upon by Army Intelligence

  1. God spies on everyone. . .

    Interestingly enough the word verification code for this comment is fire.

  2. Patrick McLaughlin on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 8:19 +0000 said:

    This should be read with “Amazing Grace” playing in the background, David.

    Without truth, can there be reconciliation?
    Without reconciliation, is there really hope?

    “Through many dangers, toils and snares…
    we have already come.
    T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
    and Grace will lead us home.”

    Thanks; I start this amazing day in tears (I may end up totally dehydrated).

  3. The first time I ever set foot in a Unitarian Universalist Church, it was the Unitarian Church of Evanston. I came to attend a Teach-In against the war. The memory is a bit fuzzy, but the year was either 1968 or ’69. This, of course, was just the kind of thing that brought the congregation under surveillance.

    But it probably would have as no surprise to activist church members to find out. Back then it was not paranoia to expect to be spied on. In neighboring Chicago the Red Squad was as intrusive as it was clumsy and UU’s led by Rev. Jack Mendelsohn helped lead the law suit that ended the practice. As a young, and not very important activist, my own phone (when I could afford one) was regularly tapped. When I went to trial for Draft Resistance in 1972 an inch thick FBI file sat on the prosecutor’s table. Perhaps the only thing that would have astonished folks at the time is the agency doing the snooping.

    Such things, unfortunately, are not in the past. Advanced technology as allowed for more intrusive surveillance techniques than were ever possible in those days conducted with little chance that the subject will be aware. The Patriot Act authorized secret investigations and make it a serious federal crime for ordinary citizens to even mention that they have been questioned or records in their care obtained. E-mail and other electronic communication of perhaps millions of American citizens can—and have been “mined.”

    Today, with the inauguration of Barack Obama, we hope that steps will soon be taken to restore the privacy of us all.

  4. Thanks for posting that Rev. Pyle.

    From time to time I do like to remind “Big Brother” that “Our Father In Heaven” is watching him. . .

    I only use the patriarchal “Our Father” because it works well here.

  5. You are welcome Robin… when you are on topic, then you are on topic and I am happy to post your comment…

    One thing though… thank you for the thought, but I’m not “Rev. Pyle” yet…. just David. Of course, I will always respond to “Chaps”…

    Yours in Faith,


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